Who killed the Electric Car?

I really don’t know enough about electric cars.  I need to learn more.  The following is a commentary from CNN.com by Alexandra Paul

LOS ANGELES, California (CNN) — I drive an electric car. Not a hybrid — a gasoline-powered car that gets some help from an electric motor — but a full electric vehicle. I plug it in at night and can drive 100 miles the next day and go faster than 80 mph on the highway.

So don’t think “golf cart”; these cars have power and pick-up.

While you won’t see many electric cars on the road, they’ve been around longer than you might think.

In 1900, electric cars outsold both gasoline and steam vehicles because electric cars didn’t have the vibration, noise and dirtiness associated with gas vehicles. But soon afterward — with the discovery of Texas crude oil that reduced the price of gasoline, the invention of the electric starter in 1912 that eliminated the need for a hand crank, and the mass production of internal combustion engine vehicles by Henry Ford — the electric vehicle went the way of the horse and buggy.

The energy crisis in the 1960s and 1970s revived interest briefly. There was another push in 1990, when General Motors Corp. unveiled the (ineptly named) Impact, a sporty, aerodynamic electric car prototype.

In 1998 the California Air Resources Board decided that if a car company could make such a car, it should, and mandated that 2 percent of vehicles sold in the state in 1998 must be emission-free, with that number rising to 10 percent by 2003.

Since California is a huge market, Honda, Toyota, Nissan, Chrysler, Ford and GM started building electric vehicles — about 5,000 were manufactured. But by 2005 the mandate had been eviscerated because of pressure from those same car companies, and 4,000 perfectly good electric vehicles were crushed.

But did car companies really want electric cars to succeed? The success of electric vehicles would have threatened the status quo and core business models of two of the world’s biggest industries — oil and automobile. It is more expedient for these companies to give lip service to hydrogen in an attempt to appear “green.” But hydrogen is a technology that experts say is decades away. 

Because the small print in California’s mandate allowed for car companies to manufacture only as many cars as there was interest in them, the game became to pretend there was no interest. Virtually no advertising money was spent to let you know electric cars existed, and even if you did find out about them salespeople actively dissuaded you from getting one.

As with any new technology, an electric vehicle was more expensive than its gas counterpart. Also, the limited range scared off customers, even though the average American drives only 34 miles a day and every electric car could go at least twice that far on a full charge.

These cars had great potential, but no media covered their subsequent crushing. It is only with the release this summer of the documentary “Who Killed the Electric Car?” that the full story comes out. This film chronicles the rise and fall of the General Motors EV1, an electric car I leased on the day it was released in 1996. Zero to 60 mph in 7.4 seconds, a top speed of 140 mph and a range of 120 miles. GM discontinued this car just a few years later. No car company today makes a mass-production electric vehicle.

My current electric vehicle, a Toyota RAV4 EV, also was discontinued a few years ago. This car costs me the equivalent of 60 cents a gallon to run. I never need to get a tune-up, change spark plugs or add water to the batteries or oil to the motor. The only maintenance for the first 150,000 miles is to rotate my tires. This car is quiet, fast and emission free. I plug it in every night at home, and it charges on off-peak energy.

Even if it were getting power solely from electricity derived from coal — a common criticism of electric cars — my vehicle uses 50 percent less carbon dioxide than a 24 mpg gas car (for a summary of more than 30 studies on the emissions of electric cars, hybrids and plug in hybrids, go to http://www.sherryboschert.com/FAQ.html). When I have to get new batteries, which I expect it will be when my car is 10 years old, the old ones will be over 90 percent recyclable.

The concern I hear most often about electric vehicles is their range. Well, at 100 miles per charge, my electric vehicle fulfills 98 percent of my driving needs, and I live in a city where everything seems to be 40 minutes away.

When I want to go further, I borrow my husband Ian’s Toyota Prius. I don’t like driving it. Am I supposed to be amazed when a car gets 43 miles per gallon? The average fuel economy mandate for cars in 1985: 27.5 mpg. For 2006: 27.5 mpg. No wonder our expectations are so low. Progress in fuel efficiency has been glacial compared to improvements in computers and cell phones.

There is a solution: The plug-in hybrid. This vehicle will run on pure electric power for up to 60 miles, and then automatically switch to gas (or a biofuel) if you drive farther. Because around 85 percent of Americans travel less than 50 miles a day, this means that most people who charge their cars at home each night would hardly ever dip into their car’s gasoline tank.

The infrastructure to charge is already in place (electric outlets are everywhere), and the technology (batteries) has been tested in the field and greatly improved upon for over 15 years. National security experts, including former CIA Director James Woolsey, are advocates for these vehicles because they say these vehicles can help break our dependence on foreign oil. Environmentalists support them because plugging in means getting an average of more than 100 mpg. Consumers like them because they will be saving thousands of dollars in gasoline costs.

Once you have known the quiet smooth speed and the clean efficiency of an electric vehicle, you will never think “golf cart” again.

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Errington C. Thompson, MD

Dr. Thompson is a surgeon, scholar, full-time sports fan and part-time political activist. He is active in a number of community projects and initiatives. Through medicine, he strives to improve the physical health of all he treats.


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